Giving the Floor to Our Fiction Characters

Like most readers I love page-turner books. Action, adventure, mystery, and thriller books qualify. But slower paced books can be page-turners, too. They also tend to be my favorites.

What makes them so irresistible if it’s not a fast-paced plot?

Characters emotionally developed.

And this is what makes the work of a writer so interesting and so challenging.

Many characteristics define the people we like and don’t like, the people we love and hate. Complex back-stories make them who they are, and these combined multifaceted elements trigger the rich palette of feelings we have for them.

But unlike real people that we discover through many encounters, often years, and even a lifetime for family members or close friends for example, fictional characters live only through the span of a book.

Since I like children and YA fiction as much as adult fiction I almost always read two books at the same time.

I am currently reading the YA Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys – she wrote the beautiful Between Shades of Grey – and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett – she wrote several outstanding novels and two moving memoirs.

In both novels, the protagonists, who are female characters, jump from the page as if they were alive.

In about 350 pages for both novels, I fell and felt for seventeen-year-old Josie and forty-two-year-old Marina in the exact same way I fall and feel for real life people.

The writers aced this character development thing, I told myself, while painfully moving on with the draft of my own YA novel.

I realize that I am slowed down because I’m still developing my main character.

Initially I thought that I had introduced enough components to create a character as true to life as a real boy: I provided a physical description, other important characteristics such as family and friends relationships, a back-story, and other elements to situate seventeen-year-old Hugo in my story.

However, instinctively I knew I was missing something. I didn’t know what, although several times I thought I was close to discovering what was missing.

A writer works alone at character development, but once in a while a discussion with writing friends can help. The other day one of them read aloud my latest chapter. While she read a particular passage where Hugo is upset at the thought of his former girlfriend being with another guy, I thought that my description was a little too strong. But my friend commented in a different way and asked me if Hugo had a history of anger. I hadn’t considered this possibility although several elements of his back-story could easily justify anger.

My friend hadn’t asked me to depict my character one way or another, but one scene in my chapter had introduced the possibility of a teen boy who had anger issues. In fact, my friend reminded me of a previous scene when Hugo is also upset. As a reader she had understood that I was foreshadowing an essential aspect of Hugo’s personality.

Was I aware of this when I wrote? No.

Had Hugo tried to tell me more about him than what I wanted to know? Yes.

Was it why I knew I had to dig deeper into this boy? Yes.

Why didn’t I do it in the first place? Well…

I was too much in charge, too controlling, too tight. Ouch.

If you write fiction you’ve probably heard that the first draft takes you to unknown places, that the best way to deal with the first draft is to let your characters speak and act the way they wish.

Alexandria LaFaye, winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for her historical fiction novel Worth, told me once that her students regularly spotted her on campus talking and gesticulating as if in the midst of a lively conversation. Only to realize that she was alone.

“I wasn’t having a conversation,” she said. “My characters did.”

Her writing reflects her ability to let her characters become real to the point of talking through her mouth.

During this writing workshop she encouraged all participants (yes, me too) to leave our inhibitions at the door while we wrote the first draft of a story.

Let me tell you that it requires training.

After my meeting with my friend, I drove home. Since I was alone, I gave the floor to Hugo.

Man, he had a lot more on his mind than I had allowed him to say!

Back to draft mode.


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